If the Fundamentalist LDS Church wanted to be left alone, it certainly seemed like its members picked the right place out on the west Texas prairie.
Isolated and without a planning and zoning ordinance in sight, the FLDS members were basically free to build their Yearning for Zion Ranch with minimal governmental oversight.
In fact, the FLDS were not even required to file for zoning permits. Deputy clerk Sarah McNealy of Schleicher County, where the ranch is located, said there are no rules or regulations of any kind regarding subdivisions for the county.
Texas Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, a real estate attorney who helped create the YFZ Land LLC to purchase the ranch, said he originally was led to believe the land would be used for a corporate hunting retreat.
"(But) even if they had disclosed (their intentions to build the ranch), under Texas law there's nothing to have prohibited them from moving forward with it," Darby said recently.
It's a west Texas thing.
People like to be left alone in west Texas, and the laws reflect that. Once property is legally acquired, governments have little power to interfere, explained Randy Mankin, editor of the Eldorado Success, the weekly newspaper in the closest thing approaching civilization to the FLDS compound.
But lack of oversight didn't equate to the actions of the FLDS going unnoticed.
And when local residents learned in 2004 of the sect's intent to build a religious compound, there were sufficient concerns to catch the attention of Texas State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, who began looking for ways to rein in his FLDS neighbors.
"I wanted to make it unappealing to them," Hilderbran said. "I hoped they wouldn't stay."
As the compound population grew, Hilderbran wrote HB3006 in 2005 to copy Utah laws targeting polygamous groups. He wanted to amend Texas' marriage laws to protect minors and prevent polygamy, bigamy and interfamily marriage. But he also wanted to make sure FLDS children were receiving minimum standards of education and that the FLDS couldn't vote as a bloc to take over rural county and city governments. Schleicher County has a few more than 3,000 residents.
But his bill stalled in committee. Folks in east Texas complained the bill would prevent marriage between second cousins; home-schooling advocates didn't want more state intervention in curriculum; minority rights advocates worried about how the voting measures would affect other minorities elsewhere, Hilderbran said.
Before the session ended, he successfully attached the marriage amendments to a Child Protective Services bill that also contained certain family law matters and was less controversial. (The bill received no opposition in committee and passed the House with about 85 percent of the vote.) His amendment raised the minimum marriage age from 14 to 16 and made violation of the law a first-degree felony. It also reaffirmed the state's prohibition of bigamy and polygamy and made clear that ceremonies performed in place of legal marriage would not be exempted.
The new laws are already being used to prosecute the leader of another religious sect practicing polygamy (the group is also suspected of underage marriages) called The House of Yahweh. The group is in a compound near Abilene, Texas, 120 miles northeast of Eldorado. The sect began in the 1980s and is not as private and secretive as the FLDS but has been described as "darker."
Yisrayl Hawkins, the 73-year-old self-proclaimed prophet, was charged in February with performing polygamous marriages, and another leader, Yedidiyah Hawkins, is accused of sexually abusing a teenager, among other charges. Like FLDS leaders, they also say they are being persecuted for religious beliefs.
Prosecutors say they are investigating potential criminal charges against some men at the YFZ Ranch. If they do file charges, the accusations may be similar.
Later, while preparing new legislation, Hilderbran sought to increase his watchdog role by "energizing" local agencies to make sure they "did their job" in monitoring the compound particularly regarding the environment.
"You can't control who comes, but you can enforce and update laws," he said. "Because our hands were tied, we needed to use the laws we had."
Hilderbran has spent much of his 20-year career in the Texas House concerning himself with land-use and wildlife issues. He believes in using and benefiting from the land but doesn't want to see it "used up, chewed up and discarded," explained lobbyist Bill Miller.
The only laws FLDS members were violating were environmental laws.
The FLDS were building a "small municipality" but were not taking appropriate measures to protect the environment, said Ricky Anderson, director of the San Angelo office of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, whose office received dozens of anonymous phone complaints in 2005 and 2006 about the ranch.
Violations ranged from the mundane unauthorized composting and burning solid waste to the major, improper disposal of treated waste water and operating a cement plant without a permit.
In all, about $40,000 worth of fines were levied against the ranch mostly in three major administrative orders, Anderson said. Several infringements over operating an industry without permits were discovered from studying the aerial photographs of the ranch posted on the Internet. Responding to all the complaints and enforcing demands was very time-consuming, he said.
Over time, changes were slower in coming and the ranch was on the verge of earning a record of "poor compliance," which would have impeded its owners' ability to gain new permits.
But Anderson never attempted to shut down the ranch, only the offending activities. He explained to FLDS leaders their responsibility in preserving clean air and water and invited them to apply for permits.
"My goal was compliance. We get a lot of people moving in from out of state and our goal and mission is to verify compliance," he said.
One problem with the disposal of treated waste water was resolved by persuading FLDS leaders to use it for irrigation of their own property instead of dumping it into a stream bed leading to fresh water springs, said Chuck Brown, staff hydrologist for the Upper Colorado River Authority. The authority even offered to help, he said.
Irrigation is nothing new for the area, said Dan Gandy of Touchdown Realty, the agent who handled the purchase of the ranch. For decades, the only way to get produce in that part of the country was to grow it. Each of the properties Gandy showed to David Allred, president of YFZ Land, had plots for cultivation and means to water them.
This was no hint at Allred's intentions for the ranch land, Gandy said, because Allred was a convincing shopper who was knowledgeable in the ins and outs of a hunting property. Ironically, another characteristic of the ranch that made it a good hunting tract was its strong fencing.
Another major sanitation problem was solved when the YFZ contracted with the city of Eldorado to take sewage and solid waste from the ranch, said Mankin.
Ranch leaders eventually met with Anderson and pledged to be "good stewards." That was more than a year ago and his office hasn't received any complaints since, he said.
Hilderbran expressed a little chagrin that the city decided to make money off the FLDS by processing the ranch's waste. Miller said he thought it was a little unusual that Hilderbran got involved in the way he did. A professional politician, Hilderbran usually comes down on the side of privacy rights both in family and property situations. That said, Miller explained, Hilderbran is also someone one might describe as a stereotypical Texan who occasionally likes to play a wild card and do his own thing.
He "doesn't go off half cocked," though, and undoubtedly has informed reasons for taking his position, Miller said.Both Hilderbran and Darby said they are planning to bring new bills targeting the FLDS residents again in the next legislative session, which begins in January. Darby said he is expecting other legislators will do the same now that the compound is under public scrutiny.
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